Tag Archives: Nicholas Royle

More praise for short stories

In November 2013 I wrote a post called In praise of short stories. It has maintained a modest readership ever since. Here is an updated version, with new recommendations.

Now is the time of the short story

Alice Munro

Short stories are flourishing. Both the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature (Alice Munro) and the 2013 International Man Booker Prize Winner (Lydia Davis) were applauded for their outstanding achievements in short stories. Penguin tried out a new publishing format with: The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith in an electronic as well as small hardback. I am not aware of repeats or intentions to continue this experiment. On-line you can find many journals that publish short stories, and there are many on-line competitions throughout the year.

I love the form, writing them and reading them. They are not novels-lite, although the stories of Alice Munro are as rich as any novel, and the reader can have the experience of a novel in one story. William Boyd suggests that the form’s strength derives from its roots in our oral traditions (see his article in Prospect from 2006 called A Short History of the Short Story).

According to William Boyd:

The great modern short stories possess a quality of mystery and beguiling resonance about them – a complexity of afterthought – that cannot be pinned down or analysed. Bizarrely, in this situation, the whole is undeniably greater than the sum of its component parts.

Nadine Gordimer said that short stories should ‘burn a hole in the page’. That’s another way of putting it.

Reading short stories

I love reading short stories, especially in anthologies. They can introduce us to new writers; give us a great experience of creative writing in a nugget; provide us with insights into different writing in a digestible form. A friend introduced me to a collection called In a Fertile Desert: modern writing from the United Arab Emirates, translated and selected by Denys Johnson-Davies. For me, the stand-out story of the anthology was The Old Woman by Maryam Al Saedi, which provided a painful insight into the treatment and expectations of an older woman. One sentence burned a hole in the page for me.

Her children only became aware of her name when they had to obtain a death certificate.

It is not clear why large publishers don’t like to publish anthologies or collections of short stories, unless they are by established authors. But smaller and independent publishers are doing their bit (let’s hear it for them AGAIN! They do seem to listen to what the reading public say they want.)

Writing short stories

Short stories have provided a platform for writers not visible in other forms. This is especially true for novice writers, and for women: think of the numerous short story competitions by Fish Publishing International Short Story Award, the Bridport Prize, The Asham Award, Costa, to mention a few. I refer to my own modest success in 2016 in Exeter Short Story Prize, organized by Creative Writing Matters.

Most how-to-write-fiction books assume novels, but I recommend Short Circuit: A guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Gebbie (published by Salt). Not only is the guidance relevant and helpful, but the writers all recommend further reading, further delights. [My apologies for misspelling in the earlier version of this post.]

My recommendations

My recommended short story writers (with some links):

And five collections to recommend:

Dorothy Whipple

Elizabeth Day’s top ten short stories, in the Guardian in 2014, draws attention to collections by well-known novelists: Julian Barnes, Jon McGregor, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Jhumpa Lahiri, as well as some I have listed, who are better known for short stories.

When I originally wrote about short stories, readers recommended the following:

  • Tim Moss – Close to the Edge
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Leaf Story
  • Alice Hoffman – The Red Garden
  • Katherine Mansfield
  • Margaret Drabble – A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman

Over to you

Which stories and writers would you recommend? What have you enjoyed? Are you a writer of short stories?

To subscribe and receive email notification of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.

 

6 Comments

Filed under Books, short stories, Writing

More praise for short stories

Short stories are not adequately commercial for small bookstores to maintain a dedicated shelf. Nor for the big publishers to risk publishing many collections, except by well-known and established writers. And all the big news stories in literature are about novels. I doubt whether any writer makes a living out of short stories. Is it possible? Let’s face it – few writers make a living from their writing.

Yet short stories are not going away. Enough of us are reading them, buying collections, writing them, enjoying them and blogging about them to sustain the survival of the form.

9781907773440frcvr.inddWhat’s to like about the short story?

The form allows as much creativity as any other; of genre, style, plot and voice. They can be dark, as many are in the Salt collection (see below). They can be easy to read but have a sharpness just beneath the surface, as Elizabeth Taylor’s do – many were published in the New Yorker.

They often contain a moment of revelation and understanding in the last paragraph. This is not always comfortable. In Hilary Mantel’s story Winter Break she presents a deeply unhappy pair locked in the coping mechanisms of an unhappy marriage. The shock of the five last words indicates their inadequacy to deal with an experience on holiday.

Short stories are not novels-lite, yet the stories of Alice Munro are as rich as any novel, and the reader feels she has had the experience of reading a novel within one story.

We can be introduced to new writers through reading short stories; be given a great experience of creative writing in a nugget; provided with insights into different approaches to writing in a digestible length.

Short stories also provide a platform for writers not visible in other forms, especially for novice writers and for women: think of the numerous short story competitions such as Fish Publishing International Short Story Award, the Bridport Prize, The Asham Award, Costa.

There was a sudden burgeoning of the form in the hands of feminist from the 1890s on: see for example Daughters of Decadence, women writers of the fin-de-siecle edited by Elaine Showalter and published by Virago.

I often read a short story or two as I make a transition from one novel to another. They are like the best palate cleansers, worth savouring in their own right.

Some recommendations

I love short stories, especially in anthologies. Nadine Gordimer said that short stories should ‘burn a hole in the page’. These three recommendations all do that.

  1. Nicholas Royle (Ed) The Best British Short Stories series

203 BBSS2015This is an annual series published by Salt. The 2015 collection has lots of dark obsessions and inverted takes on the world by inadequate people. I read these stories feeling as I do when I think I have found a new friend, only to discover too late that they are clingy and obsessive.

Nicholas Royle has a sharp tongue for those publishers that don’t help the short story project, a taste for the eerie, macabre and mysterious, and for the stories of Julianne Pachico. His useful introduction notes the growth of on-line publication of short stories, and celebrates the democratic approach of Salt Publishing.

Best British Short Stories 2015 edited by Nicholas Royle. Published in 2015 by Salt 238pp

  1. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and other Stories by Hilary Mantel

203 Assof MT coverNo commercial risk to the publisher in this collection, even if many of the stories have been published elsewhere. The title story appears in the Best of British Stories and even caused ripples among the most somnolent of the House of Lords. The story was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime and published in the Guardian review. Lord Timothy Bell and other Conservatives called for the police to investigate, and the word treason was mentioned. Mantel remarked that she was more interested in respect than taste in her writing. A short story piqued Thatcher-lovers – brilliant! Fiction produced apoplexy while the actual extra-judicial murder of Osama bin Laden was barely questioned.

There is a very dark strain through her stories and some are truly shocking such as Winter Break and The School of English. Mantel shows us the dark deeds of which her characters are capable and the women who are frequently the victims of abuse administered in subtle, gradual and calculating ways. Her stories have the power to make one uncomfortable without being far-fetched.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and other Stories by Hilary Mantel. Published in 2014 by 4th Estate 288pp

  1. Subtly Worded by Teffi

201 Teffi coverI referred to these stories recently in my post on Bookword in St Petersburg. and picked out two: Tolstoy and Rasputin. I wondered if the description of the meeting were true, and one reader left a comment to say that Teffi did indeed meet Rasputin.

Many of her early stories are variations on the theme of the biter being bitten, little denouements which are nicely satisfying. Later she came to portray people in Paris, the White Russian emigres among whom she lived between the wars.

I came across this collection in July on the blog called JacquiWine. Her review inspired me to buy the collection.

Subtly Worded by Teffi published in 2014 by Pushkin Press 301pp

Translated from the Russian by Anne Marie Jackson with Robert and Elizabeth Candler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase.

Support for Short Stories

We should note and applaud the significant role of Indie publishers in supporting the short story. The platform they provide is less showy, less expensive than that of the great or popular.

203 Galen Pike coverI’m looking forward to reading The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies, winner of the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, published in 2015 by Salt.

Most how-to-write-fiction books assume novels, but I recommend Short Circuit: A guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Grebble (published by Salt). Not only is the guidance relevant and helpful, but the writers all recommend further reading, further delights.

And BBC Radio4 occasionally broadcasts short stories, such as Tolstoy, a version of which can be found in Teffi’s collection and Hilary Mantel’s infamous Assassination.

For those who enjoy writing short stories there are many competitions to enter, not just the big ones mentioned above, but other respected competitions: the Exeter Writers and Bristol Short Story competitions, Mslexia (for women writers), and numerous on-line publishing possibilities (twitterati will see them in their time lines more or less daily, but beware of supplying publishers with free copy. Writers should be paid for their produce, just like car manufacturers and dairy farmers.)

Related posts

An excellent article about differences in writing short stories and novels by Paul McVeigh from the British Council’s Voices Magazine.

My first post on this topic was called In praise of short stories and was published in November 2013. I’ve reused some portions of that post here,

I’ve mentioned Salt Publishing already six times on this blog so here’s the link to the website and you can order books direct from them.

Here’s a list of 13 short story collections from Bustle’s site.

Which stories and writers would you recommend? What have you enjoyed? Are you a writer of short stories? Where do you publish your stories?

 

To receive emails about future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading

My Writing Space

Have you read the advice to find a quiet spot and develop regular writing habits? Does it suit you? It is not what’s needed by all writers.

I am lucky enough to live on my own, so every room is potentially a writing space, including the garden and my summer house. And I write in both of these from time to time, as well as in the kitchen – as close to the doings for making coffee as I can get for my morning pages.

I mostly write in my studio. The Guardian did a feature about David Hare in which he referred to his writing studio. Ah – good name. The word studio lends an element of work, creativity, and older works propped against the wall. I call my loft space, my writing studio. What’s in a name? It also gets called office, study or writing room.

123 studio

My studio

I like to control noise in my surroundings, quiet at times, radio or CDs playing at others. Nothing incenses me so much as the barking of my neighbour’s dogs.

I’m not a very tidy writer. I sit at a much-marked Habitat pine table which I have owned for more than 30 years. It holds up piles of papers, pots of pens, my lap top, a light. I preserve my back with an ergonomic kneeling chair from the Backshop.

123 Writing wall

The noticeboards

In front of the table is my noticeboard, which I use like a notebook. On is for photos. The other holds the schedule for reading, blog posts, some photos, and the odd inspirational saying.

Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

(Mary Oliver.)

There are several postcards, one of Cornelia Parker’s exploded shed, another some books by Rachel Whiteread. And an annotated post card from a Berlin museum:

Of all the worlds created by wo/man the world of BOOKS is the most powerful.

(Heinrich Heine.)

I’ve pinned up several copies of the Guardian Bookshop bestseller list, in which our book Retiring with Attitude has been featured for several weeks. That spot used to be occupied by encouraging e-mails from our editor. The most recent is a month old, however. I don’t think I even notice these things anymore. I’m not much of a believer in motivational notes to self.

123 viewMy view

It’s a loft room and the view is divine – out over the roofs and trees of my village. On a fine day you can see Dartmoor. But this is Devon, so it rains a lot. I know it’s there. Sometimes when I am walking on Dartmoor I look back and imagine I can see the windows of my studio. ‘That’s where I write,’ I say to myself.

 

Links

A blog: TanGental The place where I write. It’s a personalised desk.

And see the advice by Irene Waters Writing Tips: Starting the flow about the undisturbed place in which to write, quoting John Creswell’s book Research Design.

There is an interest in where writers write. The Guardian ran a series about writer’s spaces, and these appeared now and again in Nicholas Royle’s novel First Novel.

This blog was a response to a suggestion by Norah Colvin. Can you learn anything from this? Is your writing space important to you?

 

If you want to receive email notifications of future blogposts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box at the top of the column on the right.

 

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Writing

Never mind teaching it – can you learn creative writing?

You’ve heard this question before I’m sure: Can creative writing be taught? Eminent writers periodically get involved in spats on this issue. Recently one was set off by Hanif Kureishi (who teaches creative writing at the University of Kingston).  He appears to despise his students, suggesting that the vast majority of them ‘are talentless’. Lucy Ellman, novelist and ex-creative writing teacher, joined in and called creative writing courses ‘the biggest con-job in academia’.

Teaching creative writing courses has its defenders: Jeanette Winterton (at Manchester University) and bloggers Emma Darwin and Shelley Harris. Tales from the Reading Room has an excellent post about learning on a writing course.

Let’s remember that writers need to earn enough to live on. Where would they be without us amateurs to add to their income? According to The Independent, Kureishi said that having three sons means that he has to earn money from writing in any way he can.

90 First NovelAnd some write creatively about it: the blurb for First Novel by Nicholas Royle says it’s a ‘darkly funny examination of the relative attractions of creative writing courses and suburban dogging sites …’ Hmmmm.

What success criteria do the doubters have in mind? I suspect that they judge a course by the publication rate. Kureishi however suggests he is offering therapy. Really?

I am concerned for those people who attend courses to improve their writing, and whose primary objective is not publication, or therapy. Moving the focus away from publication means emphasising improvements that the writer him/herself wants to make and this leads me to ask a different question about creative writing courses: can writers learn from them, and if so what and how? I’ve spent my career in education, and found that focusing on learning (rather than teaching) opens up many possibilities for thinking in new ways.

Learning on creative writing courses.

The best learning has four characteristics:

  1. It connects with the learners’ intentions,
  2. is active,
  3. collaborative and
  4. concerned with learning about the learning.

How does this apply to creative writing classes?

Learners’ intentions

Most participants (maybe all) come to classes and workshops wanting to improve their writing. Listen to those writers in that introductory round: I want learn to end my short stories, I have lots of bits but I don’t know what to do with them, I have some great ideas but I don’t know where to start, I write lots of poems but I don’t know if they are any good …

Active learning

Most writing classes are active and not just in the sense of the pen moving across the page, the fingers moving on the keyboard. I mean active in the sense that participants have to process the topic being explored, do something with it, exercise imagination, draw together some unlikely words and images.

Here’s an example of a 30 minute activity from RAM museum workshop last month: in 5 minutes, find an object; write three words about it and note the desire/want/need that a character associated with the object is pursuing; write for 15 minutes; take ten minutes to go over what you have done.

90 teapotI found this teapot. It stretched me to put it in a brief piece of writing, but the time pressure and the constraints of the activity worked for me. (I’m not going to share the outcome of the teapot focus, but the activity was helpful for thinking about objects, and some of it will be echoed in my novel revisions.)

Collaborative learning

This for me is the most productive aspect of learning on courses – working with other writers works. We are all writers, we can say. We can encourage each other, and provide responses and feedback. Our fellow participants can provide stimulating examples, innovative ideas. And from time to time you write something you wouldn’t have written without the presence of another writer. It might have been their example, a comment they made, an idea they sparked, an image they provided, a word they used.

Learning about learning

The best classes provide opportunities for reflecting on how different people learn, for being mindful about their learning: what are the effects of pressure, of a new approach and so on. It is a skill to reflect on process and be mindful of the activities that were helpful. It’s a skill that can be learned.

Now it is quite possible to experience all these four characteristics of learning in other contexts. This means, of course, that creative writing courses are not essential to writers’ development. There are books, magazines, blogs, and mentoring and editorial services. But none of these are quite as much fun, I suspect, as those Saturday morning assemblies of ten or so people (mainly women) who rack up in some poky room in a cold community hall and gaze in anticipation at the tutor.

Do you have anything to add to the debate about teaching and learning creative writing?

 

If you want to receive email notifications of future blogposts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box at the top of the column on the right.

11 Comments

Filed under Writing

In praise of short stories

Short stories are flourishing at the moment. Both the most recent Nobel Prize for Literature (Alice Munro) and the International Man Booker Prize Winner (Lydia Davis) are applauded for their outstanding achievements in short stories. It’s a form that embraces many genres, styles, plots, and approaches. A recent innovation was the sale by Penguin of a single short story, in electronic form (£2.99) well as in hardback (£7.99): The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith. It’s an attractive innovation and has probably only happened because electronic versions are economically viable.

62 misc

I love the form, writing them and reading them. They are not novels-lite, although the stories of Alice Munro are as rich as any novel, and the reader can have the experience of a novel in one story. William Boyd suggests that the form’s strength derives from its roots in our oral tradition (see his article in Prospect from 2006 called A Short History of the Short Story).

According to Boyd:

The great modern short stories possess a quality of mystery and beguiling resonance about them – a complexity of afterthought – that cannot be pinned down or analysed. Bizarrely, in this situation, the whole is undeniably greater than the sum of its component parts.

Nadine Gordimer says that short stories should ‘burn a hole in the page’. That’s another way of putting it.

I love short stories, especially in anthologies. They can introduce us to new writers; give us a great experience of creative writing in a nugget; provide us with insights into different writing in a digestible form. A friend recently introduced me to a collection called In a Fertile Desert: modern writing from the United Arab Emirates, translated and selected by Denys Johnson-Davies. For me, the stand-out story of the anthology was The Old Woman by Maryam Al Saedi, which provided a painful insight into the treatment and expectations of an older woman. One sentence burned a hole in the page for me.

Her children only became aware of her name when they had to obtain a death certificate.

Short stories have often provided a platform for writers not visible in other forms. This is especially true for novice writers, and for women: think of the numerous short story competitions by Fish Publishing International Short Story Award, the Bridport Prize, The Asham Award, Costa, to mention just a few. There was a sudden burgeoning of the form in the hands of feminist from the 1890s (see for example the Showalter Collection below) and women have continued to make significant contributions to the form ever since (see the Angela Carter anthology for a superb selection).

Perhaps because the platform they provide is less showy, less expensive than that of the great novels, publishers don’t like collections of short stories, except by established authors, or so we are frequently told. But this is hardly true of some of the smaller publishers (let’s hear it for them AGAIN! They do seem to listen to what sections of the reading public say they want to buy.)

Most how to write fiction books assume novels, but I recommend Short Circuit: A guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Grebble (published by Salt). Not only is the guidance relevant and helpful, but the writers all recommend further reading, further delights.

Here is are five of my current favourite short story writers (not in any order and not necessarily the top five either – just five to celebrate):

62 Carver

  1. Raymond Carver (Vintage)
  2. Alice Munro (Virago and Penguin)
  3. Molly Panter-Downes (Persephone)
  4. Angela Carter (Virago)
  5. Flannery O’Connor (Faber)

And five of my favourite anthologies (again, not in order and five to celebrate):

  1. Persephone Book of Short Stories
  2. Nicholas Royle (Ed) The Best British Short Stories series (Salt) – annually
  3. BBC National Short Story – annually
  4. Angela Carter (Ed), Wayward Girls and Wicked Women (Virago)
  5. Elaine Showalter (Ed) Daughters of Decadence, women writers of the fin-de-siecle. (Virago)

62 Best

Regular readers of this blog will know I am reading through Elizabeth Taylor’s novels at the moment. When I have read them all I will start on her collected short stories. What a treat that will be.

Tessa Hadley’s top ten short stories can be found here. Her list is dominated by established novel writers: DH Lawrence, Elizabeth Bowen, Nadine Gordimer, John McGahern, but includes stalwarts such Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, Franz Kafka and, of course, Alice Munro. She has identified particular stories.

Which stories and writers would you recommend? What have you enjoyed? Are you a writer of short stories?

To subscribe and receive email notifications of further blogposts please enter your email address in the box at the top of the column on the right.

6 Comments

Filed under Reading